Longtime West Side resident Arnold Julien heard “the most touching and horrific” thing a few months ago when a 6-year-old approached him during a dinner conversation he was moderating at the Austin Library.
“He came up from the other side of the room and said, ‘Can you save me?'” Julien says about the On The Table event sponsored by The Chicago Community Trust. He and about 40 West Siders gathered in mid-May to share insights on Austin’s pressing challenges, including rampant crime that threatens young lives.
“I don’t think any kid should ever be focused on whether they’re gonna live today and tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not something that a kid should think about.”
An idea immediately came to Julien – reduce teen violence and recidivism on Chicago’s West Side through arts programing while also preparing the youth for the workplace.
The Art Xellence Pilot Summer Program, initiated by Julien and three other West Side residents, will connect elementary to high schoolers involved in the criminal justice system with working artists in fine arts, music, dancing and theater production to help them learn skills and build networks.
The goal is to help them excel at an area of work they’re interested in, Julien said.
“As of right now, there’s nothing in the community for them to have an outlet to do arts,” he said.
“In all reality, the only thing that children have in the Englewood and Austin communities is what’s outside their front door – and that being the dirt or the grass,” Julien said.
His proposal is one of 71 projects across Chicago that will receive a total of $135,500 in Acting Up awards from The Chicago Community Trust for ideas inspired by On The Table conversations held in May. Each project is receiving either a $2,500 or $1,000 grant.
Two other West Side recipients are both receiving $1,000 grants: Lunch N Learn and the Dream Investment Project.
Lunch N Learn plans to hold monthly lunchtime conversations in Austin middle and high schools, giving teens a chance to talk with inspiring adults from across the city about life values and choices.
The Dream Investment Project, spearheaded by former Oak Park resident Vau’ve Davis, intends to teach 10 Austin high school sophomores about financial literacy, including stock market and securities.
The $2,500 grant given to the Art Xellence Pilot Summer Program will allow them to revitalize a boarded-up property in Englewood, use it for activities and recruit more artists, Julien said.
The program will rotate a six-hour to daylong session between Englewood and Austin every weekend for participants.
“This will give them an opportunity to really feel connected to something – a sense of hope that they can move forward,” Julien said.
The program is set to launch in early August and will eventually recruit 25 to 30 students in each community, with a total of 10 artists.
They’ve already reached out to four artists and are working on getting permission for an abandoned property on West Concord Place in Austin, Julien said.
In all, nearly 300 groups applied for the awards this year, said Jean Westrick, director of city engagement and partnership of The Chicago Community Trust.
“We believe that when people come together, powerful things happen,” Westrick said, adding the micro-grants are meant to underscore the importance of taking action.
Twice as many grants were awarded this year – the second year of the program.
“In each and every community, there are people who have ingenuity and creativity that can address the local context,” she said.
Davis said the idea for the Dream Investment Project was inspired by the On The Table conversation that happened at Michele Clark Magnet High School – where economics was a hot topic.
Students participating in the Dream Investment Project – who are also members of a Chicago Public Schools program that helps the youth identify their career goals – will use some of the $1,000 to invest in the stock market.
“We want to touch on something that most students don’t typically learn in high school,” Davis said. “It gives them a jump start on financial investment.
By familiarizing them with the investment process, the students will use the profits and the same process to invest back into the Austin community – either a business or an organization, Davis said.
Stocks are “not something that’s talked about much, especially in the African-American community,” Davis said, adding the project is also to encourage young people to “save as much as possible.”
“Even though now they may not have a lot of funds, there are different things they can do and save in the long run,” said the 32-year-old, who runs a consulting company.